Beth Hebrew Synagogue in downtown Phoenix isn't your typical place of worship. Besides religious services, the storied site has hosted film screenings, architectural lectures, and, perhaps most notably, a panel discussion with members of the Russian protest-art collective Pussy Riot.
Continuing in that vein is a late October theatrical adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s 1941 novel Ida, a work that explores gender expectations and the cult of celebrity, two topics still at the heart of American culture.
Orange Theatre and Scottsdale Community College recently co-created a unique multimedia take on Ida, which blends theater, movement, video, and live music by an on-stage band. They premiered the work earlier this month in the black box theater at Scottsdale Community College’s performing arts center.
From October 27 to 29, they'll present the work at Beth Hebrew Synagogue, which was purchased and renovated by Phoenix developer Michael Levine in 2015, following decades of disrepair after many of its members moved to other parts of the Valley during the 1970s.
Orange Theatre is an ensemble, multimedia, experimental theater company. In January 2015, it received a $10,000 grant through Arizona Commission on the Arts after impressing an expert panel and live audience with its six-minute pitch during an Art Tank event designed to engage community members in the grant-making process.
“All of our work is new, so it’s either original or an adaptation,” says Matthew Watkins, artistic director for Orange Theatre. “Often it takes us a year or more to make a piece, taking it from first rehearsal to first performance.”
In this case, they had just seven weeks.
That’s because Scottsdale Community College needed to get the piece up and running for its fall performing arts season.
Randy Messersmith, director for the Scottsdale Community College theater department, approached Orange Theatre about creating work together in February, says Joya Scott, associate artistic director for Orange Theatre. Scott is an adjunct faculty member at Scottsdale Community College (she also teaches at Arizona State University), and Messersmith has a long history of producing, directing, and performing in local theater productions.
“Randy wanted students to have exposure to making work,” Watkins explained during opening remarks for the final Ida performance at Scottsdale Community College. Most cast members are current students or alumni of the college’s summer theater conservatory program.
In August, Orange Theatre led a workshop with student performers, designers, and dramaturgs, who help with historical context and related research. Together they explored avant-garde, non-narrative theater works. And they discussed Stein’s novel, culling images that inspired improvisations used in developing their own adaptation.
“It’s the kind of work that we’re passionate about and that gets us excited,” Scott says.
Rather than a single plot, Ida presents snippets of stories that capture little moments in life, Scott says. “It’s a very provocative, experimental work with a lot of dance, movement, and physical theater,” she adds. Characters run across stage, jump in place, plop face down onto the ground, and touch each other in sometimes intimate ways. Repetition is prevalent, in both dialogue and movement.
Orange Theatre hopes to further develop Ida, eventually taking the show on the road for a national or international tour, Watkins says.
For now, they’re eager to share Ida with local audiences, hoping it will help inspire both artists and viewers who enjoy experimental work to stay in Phoenix rather than leaving Arizona in search of non-traditional performance art. “It’s important for a healthy arts ecosystem to have a lot of different kinds of artists,” Scott says.
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But there’s another reason she’s excited about bringing Ida to Beth Hebrew Synagogue. “Independent artists just starting out don’t have access to big, expensive venues,” Scott says. So alternative venues that serve the needs of particular productions are a must.
It’s an approach several Phoenix-area artists have taken in recent years.
Rising Youth Theatre has performed on the Valley Metro light rail and in a Garfield neighborhood park. ASU’s Performance in the Borderlands has performed at Crescent Ballroom and the Rio Salado restoration area. Choreographers Nicole Olson and Liliana Gomez have created site-specific works performed in museums, galleries, and a local hotel.
Orange Theatre and Scottsdale Community College perform Ida at Beth Hebrew Synagogue at 8 p.m. on October 27 to 29. Free advance tickets are available on the Orange Theatre website. Tickets for unfilled seats will be $20 at the door.